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The Ilitches’ rink deal does NOT evoke ‘memories’ of the days of Coleman Young and Ed McNamara

I grew up as the son of a probation officer who worked for first the City of Detroit and then Wayne County and the State of Michigan in the baddest of the "bad old days" for the city, in the 70's, 80's and early 90's.

Back in the day, Detroit really was "the Murder City," and, governmentally speaking, Coleman Young's Detroit and Ed McNamara's Wayne County was where tax money went to die. The scale, breadth and pure brazenness with which literally billions of dollars of taxpayer dollars were redirected from projects supposedly designed to help the residents of a city where a thousand people were murdered every year and a county rife with poverty even during much better times...

The embezzling of funds and the, "We're not even going to pretend that we're lining the pockets of Bernard Kilpatrick, Mike Duggan, John Conyers, etc." moves were just staggering, even to a little kid whose dad would occasionally seethe and have to tell SOMEbody that he was just disgusted by the fact that everyone from his union to the citizens and media simply stood by as Young and McNamara winked, nodded and got rich.

Things didn't get much better under the Archer or Kilpatrick administrations (it's estimated that Kilpatrick's "charitable" foundations, contractual cronyism, using city collateral as a credit card and otherwise pocketing of general fund money = $2 billion of the $18 billion in city debt), and Bob Ficano's Wayne County's built upon the traditions of, "No business gets done unless my pals are 'winning' the no-bid contracts, are being paid consultant's/finder's fees and magically have charitable trusts set up in their names, funded by diverting tax revenues their way" business-as-usual stuff, but at least the damn feds are investigating what's going on, and at least the general public now knows the line between what's morally repugnant but legal governance and what's out-and-out illegal.

When a city's filing for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history--it's Chapter 9, i.e. "admit you're bankrupt and see what you can do to repay your creditors," not, "Chapter 11, everything must be liquidated!"--and when citizens have to wait 90 minutes for an ambulance, wait an hour for the cops to come if they're witnessing a violent crime, when they can't expect their streetlights to work, their kids to be able to walk to school safely or the City to give a shit if the abandoned house next door's become a crackhouse, obviously there's something very, very wrong...

And when any tax money whatsoever is being directed toward corporate interests instead of the well-being of the citizenry, even if there will be very real and very tangible benefits to the tunes of potential tens, hundreds of millions or even billions in net commerce, in-city investment, spending and taxes down the line, and even if that tax money is being diverted in a completely legal, transparent and on-going manner, seeing $12.8 million head toward a corporate interest is cringe-worthy stuff.

But the Downtown Development Authority's been diverting $12.8 million and more in property taxes Crain's Detroit Business's Bill Shea's tells us come from downtown property-holders like General Motors, Quicken Loans, Compuware and other corporate giants toward reinvestment downtown for an extended period of time now. This is nothing new.

I have moral compunctions and pangs of guilt about Mike Ilitch and Olympia Entertainment being the beneficiary of 30 years' worth of $12.8 million per year being used to partially subsidize the construction of their $650 million rink-and-economic-development project, but the Detroit Free Press's Tom Walsh's suggestion that this very publicly-vetted and voted-upon issue "stirs memories of Coleman Young" is offensive, even if the thrust of his article involves suggesting that, this time around, the "tangible benefits" are kosher with people who are striving to promote transparency and governmental responsibility to the electorate:

This Wednesday, the Michigan Strategic Fund board is expected to vote on issuing 30-year bonds to support the project. Board members are to hear further details in a conference call Monday.

There was some opposition in Lansing last December to tax-capture legislation that enabled the so-called “catalyst development project” in Detroit to move forward. But when the city’s Downtown Development Authority gave approval for the arena deal last month — a few days after Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr called for painful sacrifices across the city to resolve Detroit’s fiscal crisis — hardly a peep of protest was heard.

When I asked Orr and Gov. Rick Snyder on Friday if they felt awkward about backing a new downtown sports emporium while so many people in Detroit’s neighborhoods are struggling amid poor city services, they said no.

“It’s a public-private partnership that will lead to a number of construction jobs and more tax revenue,” Snyder said. “Let’s try to do as much as possible to grow the city.”


The new Ilitch project is much more than just a new hockey palace, said George Jackson, president of the DEGC. Moving the Wings out of Joe Louis Arena will open up attractive development opportunities along the Detroit River and create future expansion space for Cobo Center. And the location of the new arena north of the Fox Theatre will help connect the growth pockets in downtown and Midtown.


The so-called tax-increment-financing (TIF) law, which allows the capture of property taxes in downtown Detroit to be directed for use in job-creating economic development projects, dates back to the 1970s. Also at that time, events surrounding a Red Wings plan for a new hockey arena were hugely controversial.

When then-owner Bruce Norris announced a plan in 1977 to move the Wings to a site near the Pontiac Silverdome, then-mayor Coleman Young of Detroit orchestrated an 11th-hour coup to keep the Wings in Detroit by building Joe Louis Arena. In a subsequent civil suit against Norris for his change of heart — later settled for $3 million — Young was questioned in a deposition about the wisdom of public funding for sports venues.

Norris’ attorney asked Young whether he agreed with the Wings owner’s statement that an arena “is not a business that taxpayers should have to support.”

The salty mayor’s reply: “It’s propaganda, obviously. And very possibly part of the bargaining process. It’s a lot of bull----.”

It's always going to be a lot of bullshit, but at least in this day and age, Detroit's bankruptcy included, there's some accountability involved, and given that the area around the new rink's footprint is still so dangerous for white folks and black folks alike that I've had to tell someone who's taking in the Winter Classic and its preceding outdoor events to NOT ATTEMPT to explore the still-notorious Cass Corridor south of Wayne State and north of Foxtown for their safety's sake...

I'm comfortable sleeping at night knowing that the Ilitches plan on helping bring something of Western Civilization to an area of downtown Detroit that is nothing less than a poverty-and-crime-ridden urban wasteland separating Downtown from Mid-town, and as someone who grew up during the days where hundreds of millions of dollars would go missing with nary a shrug from the shoulders of the average people fitting the taxation bill because they knew that no one would ever, ever be held accountable for getting rich off of working, working poor and poor folks' income, property, sales, service etc. taxes...

I'm okay with the DDA giving that money to the Ilitches, because at least we know where it came from, where it's going and why. As the fiasco surrounding the unfinished and wildly over-budget addition to the Wayne County Jail illustrates, that's certainly not the case regarding a still staggeringly-high number of ongoing City and County business deals that are in the present tense.

My departed father would be unhappy if I did not end this little essay by suggesting that former Mayor Young and former Wayne County Executive McNamara and all their friends should continue to enjoy their tenure as rotting citizens of hell. I sure as *#$%@& hope that's where they ended up, because they earned their places there.

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OlderThanChelios's avatar

That was an interesting read, George. And you obviously have as much passion about what you say as you have knowledge of the events leading up to the current bankruptcy. But I find one “protagonist” glaringly absent from your piece.

Where is the condemnation of the greedy public-sector unions who’ve held the city hostage numerous times, extracting hugely unfair concessions before they’d allow the city to begin functioning again. Don’t they deserve a prominent place in any discussion about the “whys and wherefores” of Detroit’s current situation?

It seems to me that their greed is just as responsible for the bankruptcy as the greed of folks like Young, McNamara and Kilpatrik.

Posted by OlderThanChelios from Grand Rapids, MI on 07/20/13 at 06:03 PM ET

George Malik's avatar

There is no protagonist here. There are only sinners, no savior.

And regarding the unions, my father hated his union, but he was just as powerless to battle its corruption as he was to battle the city’s corruption.

The issue I have with blaming unions is that the “bosses” who got rich and got their friends rich off the backs of both their representatives and the City were about as easily dissuaded as the elected officials.

It’s not right or proper in my point of view to suggest that those who voted in Kwame Kilpatrick got what they “deserved,” and as such, it’s not right or proper in my eyes to blame everyone who was in a union as complicit in the actions of their union’s leadership.

My dad couldn’t do jack or shit to stop his union from putting its members last, though he tried, and my friends who work for the State of Michigan find themselves in similar straits because State workers are all but entombed by the largesse that surrounds their means of recourse to complain about those who abuse the system for a living in addition to not doing their jobs.

All they can do is work their asses off while attempting to make an honest living, just as my dad did, and it pisses me off when it’s suggested that the unionized employees who’ve put in 20 or 30 or more years of service to the City of Detroit in honest fashion should be the first ones thrown off the cliff because those who got rich off of their pensions invalidated the right of the rest to collect on the pension programs they paid into.

Yes, the unions played a large role in the downfall of Detroit. But there were no “good guys” in this battle, and in its post-mortem, with the majority of the city’s debt being owed to people who paid into the system that stole from them while working in the City, I don’t quite understand how people who are on fixed incomes that are now being double-taxed by the State should somehow take the fall for those who made a mint and walked away before the going got tough.

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 07/20/13 at 06:18 PM ET

Gumby's avatar

It’s about time I read about Young getting the credit he deserves for the fall of Detroit.  It all started with him.  Days after his death, I remember a reporter asking Brooks Patterson to say a few words about Young (considering all of the fueding the two have had).  He said that Coleman Young has done more for the growth of Oakland County than any single human being.

Posted by Gumby from the city with more ruins than Rome on 07/20/13 at 06:19 PM ET

awould's avatar

My mom spent some time around Coleman Young back in the day. She told me that there was usually bet at functions where he’d attend. It was an over/under on how many times he’d say “*#$%@&” before dinner ended. She didn’t like him very much.

Posted by awould on 07/20/13 at 08:24 PM ET

awould's avatar

that word was “motherfucher” btw

Posted by awould on 07/20/13 at 08:25 PM ET

Primis's avatar

George, I guess the questions are these:

What other plans are there currently for the area besides Illitch’s?  And what other events, aside from Wings, would the new arena be able to draw in (would its proximity to Comerica and Ford Field actually HURT it in that regard)?

I know a lot of cities look at an arena as some sort of “expensive but easy” fix, and that’s just not the case.  As a fan of minor pro hockey, I’ve seen it time and time again.

Grand Rapids worked w/ Van Andel Arena because there were OTHER efforts in concert with it—a point that was completely lost on those pushing for a new arena in downtown Kalamazoo that was expected to be the sole savior, and seems to be lost on so many others who have cited Grand Rapids as an example..

I know Reading, PA pinned hopes on the Sovereign Center only to find that 30-some home dates a year and a truly-small handful of other events simply isn’t enough to really drive economic development in the area.  Bloomington, IL built an arena and it sunk the city and now they’ll be lucky if the arena doesn’t go dark.  In Detroit there’s the alleged benefit that Comerica and Ford Field will be in the “area” but I don’t know how linked the two areas are if at all, even though they look close on a map.  They look like they could be 2 very different neighborhoods.

An arena is not a “fix”, it’s a part of a much larger plan.  And I understand there’s further development involved than just the arena, but I mean development beyond that even.

Is Illitch going this alone, or will he have any others helping shoulder it in terms of the area?

. . . . . .

As for the rest?  Well… I dunno’.  I live in rural Michigan.  As bleak as things may seem in Detroit, it’s honestly worse in some places around here.  There are some towns that I legitimately don’t think will be around in another 25 years now.  I see schools consolidating/closing all over, or at least talking about it in long, drawn-out dialogues.

The county next to the one I currently reside in is screwed.  They have 2, maybe 3 school systems on the verge of closing/consolidating with others.  The biggest town in the county remains solely because of the local college, there’s almost nothing else left in the town for business.  The local school there was once Class B for athletics, is currently C, and is heading in the direction of D-class (that’s a huge loss of enrollment).

I’ve watched even the very profitable smaller companies close around here because their parent corporation is hopelessly trying to stop the bleeding at other large companies by rolling their assets together (and of course failing, because it’s just a temporary fix to the ledger, not a permanent one).  Very bad business decisions made because there are literally no others left.  People not working for 3, 4, or 5 years, and others not grasping you can’t “just go get a factory job” because there are no damn factories left anymore to get a factory job at (you’d be surprised how many otherwise-reasonable individuals still can’t make that basic f***ing connection).

Detroit is going to survive, because it’s too big not to.  Other communities in Michigan aren’t so lucky to be that big to begin with, and can’t or won’t ever bounce back, period.

And there are “larger” places even like Battle Creek that just…. I dunno’.  They’ve lost the ANG base I guess, I don’t know what other kinds of cutbacks have taken place at Fort Custer and the area, and Kellog’s, Post, etc, all still reeeeaaaalllllly struggling, with not much else in the town…

So I guess while everyone supports Detroit, it’d be nice if we didn’t forget that a lot of the rest of the state is completely f***ed and in many cases in worse straits than Detroit still and nobody ever talks about it.

Posted by Primis on 07/20/13 at 11:29 PM ET

George Malik's avatar

There are municipal bankruptcies and utterly ridiculous levels of cutbacks in social services, public safety, education, etc. all over the damn state. More than a couple cities, large and small, have emergency managers, and “painful but necessary cuts” are occurring everywhere (and I despise the term I just placed within quotation marks).

It’s not the City of Detroit. It’s the State of Michigan, and I’ve been incredibly lucky that I live in a city whose tax base’s taxable incomes are grossly disproportionate to that of the household I live in, so we’ve been able to keep things like a city police force, a library and schools that haven’t had to cut EVERYthing or make extracurriculars pay-to-play activities. The vast majority of the rest of the state hasn’t had it that “easy.”

I know that Garden City, where I grew up, has no library, there’s been talk of combining its police, fire and ambulance services with other cities as the city can barely afford to staff their own departments…And in Wixom, all of one town over, the 2-mile-long-by-one-mile-wide Ford plant is just being torn down after sitting vacant for half a decade.

The City of Detroit gets disproportionate talk time on TV and in the newspapers because it’s an easy, obvious angle. That’s not the case for the rest of a state that stepped into an economic crater collectively around 2004, really, and few of us have managed to climb out as of yet. It’s state-wide, region-wide, and from my friend in the Keweenau Peninsula in the U.P. on down, it’s been a rough go.

In terms of the economic development downtown, it’s $450 million for a rink with all the accoutrements and probably a parking garage and another $200 million in development for the rest of the area, which is $200 more million than anyone’s ever wanted to invest in the behind-the-Fox area and especially the Cass Corridor north of 75. That area is such a wasteland that its scares me, and I don’t scare easily.

When the Free Press did a story about the area and the “neighborhood” that would be lost, about all it could find that would be mourned was a dinky little bar that didn’t discriminate against old, poor black gay men—if ever there was a minority group, that’s it—and a bunch of people who remembered what it was like when the Masonic Temple was the anchor pointing to a vibrant neighborhood in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.

It’s still the kind of area that is nothing less than perfect territory to film whatever that Robocop remake is. Lots of empty lots and drugs and crime. It reminds me of the way folks used to have to “dash” between Greektown and the Joe. Now you can pretty much walk up Woodward from the river to Foxtown and be fine, but from I-75 to mid-town and the start of Wayne State University’s campus, it’s still somewhere nobody should hang around in for long, and given the redevelopment of the midtown area, that’s a big, ugly eyesore keeping two remarkably renewed areas of economic and urban development separate.

This makes sense for the city and it makes sense for the tri-county area, the region and the state.

The Downtown Development Authority isn’t stupid—it’s the one part of the government downtown that’s facilitated actual shit getting done UNDER-budget as over a hundred and fifty million bucks has gone into that Wayne County Jail expansion site and up and vanished into the pockets of contractors and county officials—and it’s not about to suggest to the State of Michigan that somebody drop almost three quarters of a billion bucks after all is said and done on a money pit, not in this day and age. So if they’re kosher with the plan, it’s got a backbone.

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 07/21/13 at 12:48 AM ET

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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.